Monday, January 29, 2024

A crisis of authority. . .

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (B), preached on Sunday, January 28, 2024.

Authority the word or concept has lost some of its value of late.  It started long ago in the rebellious years of free love and no war.  It matured into deep suspicion and skepticism of those who claim authority. It ended up with resistence to those who exercise it.  Our world is a political mess and it is not much different here at home.  The real authorities sit in silence as those who claim authority stir up violence and issue threats.  Our schools are locked down and inside it seems like the inmates are running the asylum.  We cry out for law and order but we suspect the police of being bullies and bigots.  Surely it is the wrong time to preach on authority.

Yet authority is exactly what our world is crying out for – not imaginary authority or imagined authority but real authority.  We are not talking about the kind of authority that comes from more money or a bigger gun or more votes or more alphabet salad behind your name.  We are talking about divine authority – authority over life and death.  This is the authority of Jesus.  It is not His because He claims it but because He exercises it.  He demonstrates this authority by forgiving the sins of sinners, by transcending the laws of nature, by healing the sick, by raising of the dead, and by casting out demons.  

All of this was not lost on the crowds of Jerusalem and in the outlying areas even into Capernaum.  They had heard the stories all right.  Even without a newspaper or screens that give us breaking news every second, Jesus had already become a celebrity, a phenomenon.  But the authority of Jesus was not displayed simply in the drama of food multiplied or the sick healed.  In fact, the first place where the people noticed something different in Jesus was in His teaching.  Jesus taught them as one with authority – different from the rabbis and scribes and teachers they had known before and heard from their religious leaders.

The teachers then footnoted their teaching with rabbinical authority.  But Jesus did not quote others.  Jesus spoke the Word.  Even more, He spoke it as one who knew that Word inside and out.  He spoke the Word as its author.  That is the meaning of real authority.  Jesus is the author of the Scriptures, the Word eternally begotten of the Father and now incarnate in the flesh and blood of the Son of Mary.  Jesus was pretty clear about this.  “You heard it said but I say unto you...”  The Pharisees, scribes, and elders tried to fact check Jesus but every time they tried His authority only increased and they backed off.

Furthermore, Jesus did not try to convince them that He was right.  He did not defer to the judgment of His hearers.  There is no democracy to determine what the Word of God is or means.  There is no need to marshal opinions to one side or another.  There is no vote.  Jesus speaks bluntly – too bluntly for our ears but so bluntly that He is unassailable.  Even His opponents note this.  At the end of His ministry they admit that Jesus does not care about the opinions of others and He cannot be swayed.  He is one who is of the Word and who keeps the Word.

The Church has lost this kind of authority.  Some might point to doctrinal conflicts or moral failings of the clergy or the many other options available to people as the reasons for this loss.  I am sure they contribute.  But the real reason why the Church has lost its authority is that we are no longer people of the Word of God.  Unlike Jesus, we do care what people think.  We even change God’s Word on the basis of what people think.  We have turned Bible study into a free for all where everyone gets an opinion and we have made doctrine into a bad word.  As a result, the world looks at Christians and sees a leaf blown through the air, without anchor, purpose, or goal.

Jesus came to manifest the authority of His Word, putting into flesh and blood and deeds what Scripture says.  He came to restore creation, bringing what and who God made back to God.  He came to repair what sin broke, covering our sins with His righteousness and repairing death with the life that cannot die.  He came to deliver the helpless from the devil’s temptation and power and to cast out demons from the people of God.  He came to plant hope where despair or indifference once reigned and build that hope on the promise of a new and everlasting heaven and earth.  He came to bestow the gifts of God upon the undeserving who can offer God little more than their sins which they confess and their trust in His mercy.

This is why the Church exists and what the Church has been given to do.  While it is a good thing to organize food drives for the hungry and financial help for the needy and to sponsor youth programs and events for senior citizens and even musical concerts for everyone.  This is not why we are here.  We exist to proclaim the Word of the Lord that endures forever and to proclaim it without apology or embarrassment or avoiding its sharp edges.  We exist to forgive the sins of the penitent and to teach knowledge of salvation and to serve the people of God with the gifts of God through which they are saved.  We do not have authority because people like or respond to what we do.  We have authority because of His Word.

As we wield the two edged sword of that Word, people are saved, kept in their salvation, and delivered from death to everlasting life.  The miracles of Jesus were not in place of the Word or more profound than His Word.  The miracles of Jesus were in support of the Word so that in words and deeds there was one message, one authority, and one purpose being accomplished.  If we as the Church had the same clarity to what we said and what we did, just maybe the Church would not be in the mess that it is right now.

What the Church does not need are more programs or a better social media presence or more people who think we are doing a good job.  What we do need is as simple and blunt today as it was when Jesus was in the synagogue of Capernaum.  We need to be people of Christ’s Word, under the authority of that Word, and captive to that Word and not to the whims of feelings, opinions, preferences, or wants.  We need pastors who will be the same – teachers of the Word who wield the authority of that Word in order to fulfill Jesus’ own saving purpose.  We need people who will insist that they be given God’s Word in full strength, the whole counsel of that Word, and who will make it the bedrock foundation of their homes and lives.

The Pharisees said that Jesus did not care about the opinions of people but Jesus does care about people.  Jesus does not defer to the authority of others but exercises the real authority of the Word of God because it is the only Word that saves.  When Christianity begins to do the same, the people will once again be astonished by such authority and be drawn to it because it is the only Word that saves.

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